History of the Springfield Art Museum

Founding

black and white photo of Deborah Weisel

The Springfield Art Museum is the city’s oldest cultural institution. It started as the Art Study Club, founded by a small group of women in 1926 and led by Deborah D. Weisel (pictured right). As a Philadelphia native, Weisel modeled the Club after the Fellowship of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, inviting other women to join them in the task of researching art museums.

In 1927, the club sent a series of resolutions to the Springfield Chamber of Commerce, “to place city planning on their program of activities for the improvement of Springfield.” The group was successfully incorporated on June 26, 1928 as the Springfield Art Museum. Immediately, they began bringing in traveling exhibitions from New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and more. A small public collection began that year with Mary Butler’s painting The King, Isterdalen, Norway. At first the Museum used the public library to exhibit artwork, then the Wilhoit Building in downtown Springfield after quickly outgrowing the library.

Acquisition by City and Continued Growth

By 1946, the Museum became a City department when Council approved a special levy to include financial support of the Museum and appointed a nine-member board. The Art Study Club eventually deeded the Museum to the City, and the group thereafter reorganized as the Southwest Missouri Museum Associates. SMMA’s original membership has grown to over 1,000 members and continues to play a vital role in supporting and developing Museum efforts. Another integral support group, the Friends of the Springfield Art Museum, was founded and incorporated in 1983 with the goal of purchasing art and infrastructure items and sponsoring classes for students.

photo: springfield art museum in 1958

1958 saw the first stage of building completed on the current Museum site in Phelps Grove Park. The new facility included staff offices, studios, a library, and three galleries. The largest gallery was dedicated to Ms. Weisel, who had passed eight years earlier. In 1979, a 400-seat auditorium was added to the Museum through the efforts of SMMA. photo: springfield art museum in 1994The Jeannette L. Musgrave wing was completed in 1994, which greatly increased exhibition space and storage capacity with climate-controlled vaults. In 2008 the largest wing yet was added, including a new lobby, a bigger library, a gift shop, the new SMMA office, and five galleries, totaling over 10,000 square feet. The Studio began offering spring, summer, and fall sessions in multimedia for people of all ages. The Library now has over 6,000 volumes, and the permanent collection boasts nearly 10,000 works of art.

Museum Leadership

The permanent collection has expanded under a series of Museum Directors, with a concentration on paintings, prints, and drawings by American artists.

  • The first director, Winslow Ames (1947-1950) can be credited with securing prints by great European masters such as Rembrandt.
  • Kenneth Shuck (1951-1975) added works by modern American artists such as Charles Burchfield, Ben Shahn, and Thomas Hart Benton. Mr. Shuck also spearheaded the Springfield Art Museum’s popular Watercolor U.S.A. annual exhibition in 1962.
  • William Landwehr (1976-1988) expanded the Museum’s means of acquiring new watercolors for the collection, purchased numerous additional works by Benton, and began collecting more contemporary artworks by Motherwell, Nice, Cottingham, and Francis.
  • Jerry Berger (1988-2011) implemented many of the renovations that make the Museum as grand as it is today, including the new wing in 2008. Mr. Berger also diversified the scope of the artists represented in the permanent collection.
  • The Museum’s current director, Nick Nelson, is driven by expanding community outreach and leading the development of an updated and comprehensive interpretive plan for the Museum.
photo: springfield art museum in 1994

Mission

The Springfield Art Museum is dedicated to enhancing the education and documenting the cultural heritage of the people of southwest Missouri, through the collection, preservation, and exhibition of art objects. We are stewards of the community’s most valuable cultural treasures, and the future of the Museum and its programs continues to be bigger and brighter than ever.

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1111 East Brookside Drive
Springfield, MO 65807
417.837.5700

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